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JOHN RAINE: Can our Universities Rescue themselves from Politicisation?



Earlier this year, I wrote with colleagues David Lillis and Peter Schwerdtfeger about the current financial and cultural challenges facing the university sector. Peter Schwerdtfeger and I summarised key issues in an opinion piece (endorsed by 24 senior academics), calling on action from the new Government in The Post on 3rd November 2023.


A critical issue has been the politicisation of universities across the Western world over the past 20 years. While the New Zealand Education and Training Act 2020 is more explicit about expectations of Schools under the Treaty of Waitangi, Clause 267 of the Act provides for academic freedom and autonomy in the university sector. It specifically states that academic freedom includes, “The freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”.  This in principle upholds freedom of speech within the university and should allow the open exchange of ideas, and philosophical and political viewpoints. 


The 1967 Kalven Committee Report [1] and the 1988 European Bologna Accord [2] reaffirm the role and functions of the university in the modern world. The Kalven Report states, in particular:


To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”


If the universities as institutions themselves fail to adhere to the principle of political neutrality, as called for by both of these declarations, they will tend to promote an internal culture that reflects the institution’s position.  This has been a major issue for some years in the USA, for example, around politics of gender, identity, and ethnicity, and it came to a head on December 5th, 2023, around the rights of students to make extreme statements on campus, whether pro-Palestinian or pro-Jewish.


In the aftermath of the US Congressional hearing involving the Presidents Gay, Kornbluth and Magill of Harvard, MIT and UPenn, respectively, into antisemitism on university campuses, we have seen massive hits on online media reports and the YouTube record of the hearing. The UPenn President Magill has resigned over her inability to describe what were seen as calls for genocide of Jews as actionable conduct by students, while on 13th December the US House of Representatives voted 303 to 126 in favour of a resolution condemning antisemitism on college campuses and calling on the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to resign, after House resolution claimed their answers at the Hearing were “evasive and dismissive.”


Harvard academic Steven Pinker has also commented in the Boston Globe [3] on events at Harvard. He notes, A university does not need a foreign policy, and it does not need to issue pronouncements on the controversies and events of the day. It is a forum for debate, not a protagonist in debates”.  There is a distinction here between the positioning of the university itself and the discourse it enables within its academic community.


In New Zealand, our universities climbed onto the gender and identity politics bus, but in a different but related critical social justice alignment, most universities also declared themselves Te Tiriti-led.  While some may argue for this by asserting that the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document, this Treaty alignment of the universities has brought collateral consequences that move the institutions and the wider national research system away from political neutrality. Academic colleagues across the sector report the following, although the occurrences are widespread in some departments and rare in others:


·         Moves to make courses on mātauranga Māori and “the principles of Te Tiriti” compulsory for first year students.

·         Statements that the content and appropriateness of mātauranga Māori in courses cannot be questioned by non-Māori.

·         Imposition of Māori ceremony (including karakia at the start of many meetings) on internal and community-facing events.

·         Under current financial pressures, the protection of Māori-oriented programmes ahead of those that are more internationally relevant such as languages and classics.

·         Pressure to ease academic standards to increase graduation rates of Māori and Pasifika students.

·         A decolonisation narrative run by some academics, which is within their academic freedom rights but is nonetheless potentially or actually divisive.

·         Requirements to attend Treaty familiarisation/expectations workshops, and the attendant marginalisation of academic staff who have expressed disagreement with the infusion of Te Ao Māori into the university culture.

·         The exclusion of non-Māori from publication in a Māori-led journal at the University of Auckland.

·         Lack of success of MBIE Endeavour research grant applicants because of claims that they had not sufficiently addressed Vision Mātauranga in areas such as Physics and Engineering.


The injection of mātauranga Māori may appear in courses on virtually any topic, often in a strained way, and may include the spiritual and mythical elements as if they were just as reliable as scientific content. If we incorporate Māori spiritual values into ecology classes, how do we justify the exclusion of creationism from evolution classes which are grounded in modern science?


Māori spirituality/ceremony appears not just in meetings of major significance where ceremony is expected, such as graduations and beginnings of large conferences. Prayer and song have become routine and often effectively mandated even in low-level, everyday work meetings at universities, with no mechanism of opt-out or conscientious objection for those who are sceptics of religion, spirituality, or compelled participation in ceremony or recitation of values.


Were New Zealand a country that could exist happily in isolation, maybe none of this would matter greatly, but the prosperity and international standing in teaching and research of our universities rest heavily on the delivery of a broad range of high quality degree programmes across the humanities, sciences, medicine, engineering, law and business, with high academic standards in a learning and research environment that is secular and encourages open debate on all subjects.  Likewise, the attraction of international students depends on the same factors, and our universities depend critically on international student business for their financial viability.

 

To put this in perspective, in 2019 International student business was worth $5Bn to NZ (including wider economic activity benefits), with over $600m in direct student fee income to the universities. International enrolments in 2019 represented, for example 15.5% of the total enrolments in 2019, but over 40% of total tuition fees. The financial pain now being felt by this sector was predictable the moment the Covid border closures occurred. Rebuilding this business has been slow because of faster restarts by the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia and lack of student visa processing capacity in NZ’s Department of Immigration.


I firmly support the laudable moves in the university sector to engage more strongly with iwi, to engage with Māori and Pasifika students at high schools to draw them into tertiary study (and we should aim for this to be on merit and without patronisation or paternalism), to deliver greater academic and pastoral care support for these students, and to lead more students into postgraduate studies. However, the extensive move to reflect Te Ao Māori in university culture has led to politicisation of the institutions and some loss of freedom of speech. Is there a way to support the presence of Te Ao Māori in academia without it leading to an environment of indoctrination or, in some cases, coercion?   


Minister of Education Erica Stanford announced just after the October 2023 election that the universities would be required to ensure freedom of speech as a condition of Government funding.  She should add a funding condition around reducing oppressive behaviour in the broader area of diversity, equity, and inclusion, whose university directorates are, in Steven Pinker’s words, “…..enforcing a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups, and the exclusion of freethinkers.” Such changes will be difficult to achieve unless the universities also position themselves as completely secular at the institutional level, as well as ensuring that academic discourse and the rights of academic freedom of staff are not negated by requirements to respect one culture or identity view above others on campus. As Steven Pinker also points out, universities must ensure that diversity of thought exists in the academic community through avoiding like-minded hiring that results in groupthink and dogma on campus.


There is work to do for our universities to reset their direction.  Their Councils and Vice Chancellors would do well to remember the words in the first of four fundamental principles in the Bologna Accord [2], which echo those from the Kalven Report:


“….. To meet the need of the world around it, the university’s research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.”

………………………………………………………….


References


1.         Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, University of Chicago, 11th November 1967

2.         Magna Charta Universitatum, Bologna, 18th September 1988.

3.         Steven Pinker, “Rescuing universities from themselves: A five-point plan: For universities to have a leg to stand on when they try to stand on principle, they must embark on a long-term plan to undo the damage they have inflicted on themselves. This includes Harvard.” Boston Globe, ISSN  07431791, 12th December 2023, 5pp.   


John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand Universities.


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